The man knew what to expect from Islamist fighters. They had appeared at his door for years, demanding money or livestock — the taxes he paid to survive. Then one morning in March, the threat in his rural community suddenly had a confusing new face: White men in military fatigues, yelling in a language he did not recognize.
“They were shooting people. People in their homes,” he said. “Everywhere, bodies were dropping to the ground.”
At least 300 people are believed to have been killed in the man’s town of Moura, in central Mali, though he and other witnesses suggest the toll could be far higher. Similar accounts have emerged across the West African nation since hundreds of Russian mercenaries joined the Malian army this winter in the fight to reclaim territory from groups loyal to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The hired guns of the Wagner Group — a covert arm of the Kremlin, according to the United States and Western allies — have been repeatedly accused of war crimes, leaving a trail of atrocities across the Middle East and Africa. Profits flow back to Moscow, according to Western intelligence officials and security researchers, helping prop up Vladimir Putin’s government at a time of growing economic isolation over its war in Ukraine.
In Libya, U.S. defense officials said Wagner agents planted explosives in children’s toys. In the Central African Republic, human rights investigators received reports that mercenaries sexually assaulted young women and girls.
In Mali, where insurgents have overrun vast stretches of the country, witnesses told The Washington Post that men they believe to be Russian operatives have killed scores of innocent people in recent months under the guise of restoring peace.
“There are quite a lot of eyewitness accounts on the presence of White soldiers speaking an unknown language,” said Héni Nsaibia, senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which documents violent events around the world. Mounting visual evidence, he added, “strongly suggests they are private Russian military contractors and not conventional Russian forces.”
Between 800 and 1,000 Russian mercenaries are now active in Mali, according to U.S. military officials focused on Africa, providing services that cost Mali’s military government up to $10 million monthly. They guard the presidential palace, officials say, and are tasked with tracking extremists in the scrubland.
The number of Malians fleeing to neighboring Mauritania has surged in the months since Wagner landed. Registrations at a refugee camp near the border have more than quadrupled since February, according to the U.N. refugee agency. And groups that track civilian deaths at the hands of security forces say fatalities have skyrocketed.
Wagner operates in secrecy, masking its activities with an evolving network of shell companies that often avoid formal paperwork. But documents and imagery reviewed by The Post, some of them previously unreported, point to a heightened Russian presence in Mali.
Satellite photographs illustrate the buildup of a military base outside the airport in the capital, Bamako, which Western officials say is used by Wagner operatives. Flight records reveal Russian Air Force jets making unpublicized trips to and from that city. Drone videos and surveillance photos captured by French authorities and reviewed by The Post show White men in uniform alongside Malian forces.
The Malian government has denied hiring Wagner, saying it works only with Russian military instructors. But Russian officials have publicly contradicted that claim, calling the operatives “private" contractors. The line is blurry, experts say, as many Wagner agents are Russian military veterans.
The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment. When asked by The Post in March about Wagner’s expanding footprint in Mali, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We have nothing to do with the activities of private military companies abroad.”
The Malian government and army did not respond to messages and calls seeking comment.
‘Nowhere is safe’
Ever since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, poisoning relations with the West, it has pushed to build alliances elsewhere. Putin paid special attention to African nations, where movements to slash ties with former colonizers like France were gaining steam — particularly in Mali, a nation of 21 million. Despite a nine-year international military intervention led by Paris, extremists now dominate two-thirds of the territory.
After French President Emmanuel Macron announced last year that Paris planned to withdraw thousands of troops, Bamako turned to Moscow. Relations with France collapsed. Malian officials kicked out the French ambassador and told all French troops to leave “without delay."
Not long after that, the White strangers in military fatigues showed up, said the man who described the bodies falling.
The Post is withholding the names of witnesses because they fear retaliation by the Malian government.
The man is a musician from the town of Moura, once a sleepy community of farmers and herders. The peace was shattered when al-Qaeda militants invaded the country in 2012. They settled in Moura seven years ago, giving residents an ultimatum: Support us, leave with nothing, or die. Many in the town of roughly 10,000 chose to stay and adhere to uncomfortable new rules.
“The jihadists made everyone dress like them and grow beards like them,” the musician said. “For men, it’s hard to tell us apart. You are not a jihadist but you look like a jihadist.”
Insecurity has fueled waves of civil unrest in Mali, making room for army officers to overthrow two presidents in the past two years. The new military leaders pledged to bring in help to end the bloodshed.
Satellite imagery shows that construction of the new military base near Mali’s main airport began in August, a month before news broke that leaders were negotiating a deal with Wagner. Mercenaries sleep in the barracks and run a logistical hub, according to the Western officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
At least six Russian military aircraft have touched down this year in Bamako. Three were unannounced by the Malian military, according to flight data provided by Flightradar24 and cellphone video posted to Telegram. On the way to Mali, some appeared to make stops in Syria and Libya, countries where Wagner is known to operate.
Surveillance photos and drone video captured last month by the French Armed Forces and shared with The Post show what military officials described as Russian mercenaries at a Malian base formerly occupied by French troops. The patch of a white skull, a symbol embraced by Wagner, is visible on a vest.
An unprecedented massacre
Mali’s relationship with Moscow has proved popular in Bamako, thanks in part to a sophisticated disinformation campaign linked to the Kremlin. Rallies regularly feature Russian flags and signs celebrating Wagner.
Beyond the capital, though, enthusiasm fades to fear.
“I am terrified of the extremists,” one cow seller from Moura told The Post. “I am terrified of the Malian army and these White soldiers. Nowhere is safe.”
Malian soldiers and their Russian partners killed at least 456 civilians from January to mid-April, ACLED estimates, marking a sharp year-over-year rise in the number of deaths attributed to security forces.
“The Russians are making Mali less safe,” said a Malian conflict researcher based in the heart of the insurgency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the government has arrested critics. “They can loot and massacre the population without consequences.”
The United Nations team charged with investigating human rights abuses in Mali has tried since February to reach areas where reports of extrajudicial killings have surfaced but has been blocked repeatedly by the government. Security forces briefly detained U.N. investigators trying to interview witnesses from Moura in late April. The witnesses were jailed, according to two people with knowledge of the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear government retaliation.
The largest massacre was in Moura, where 300 people were killed during a four-day operation in late March, a Human Rights Watch investigation found.
“I’ve documented atrocities by all sides in Mali for over a decade, and while armed Islamists have massacred hundreds of people, this is the worst single atrocity by any group,” said the author, Corinne Dufka.
The Post interviewed three men from Moura, the musician and two cow sellers, who said they witnessed the massacre. All three fled the town and went into hiding. Their accounts paint a picture of a brutal operation that left no room for due process.
The violence began when five helicopters appeared on the morning of March 27. One landed in each corner of Moura, while one equipped with artillery hovered in the air.
Immediately, people began to run — a mix of extremists and civilians. The security forces shot at everyone.
About a fifth of the commandos were White, the witnesses estimated. They all seemed to be wearing the same uniform, and one of the Malian soldiers acted as an interpreter. The White men were shouting to one another in a foreign language.
“If I hear French, I know it is French,” said the musician, who speaks a local dialect but watches television in French, Mali’s official language. “I did not recognize the language.”
The security forces spread throughout Moura, breaking into houses and dragging men out. They left the women and children alone.
The musician said he tried to remain calm and show the intruders his papers. He knew men in the area who had been mistaken for extremists and killed over the years.
“The jihadists live among us,” the musician said. “We have no choice. In this village, there is no presence of the government. There is no law. The jihadists knew that. It is easy for them to control.”
A Malian soldier scanned his documents and told him to sit on the ground outside his house. He watched some of his neighbors get tied up and dragged away. Many remained outside, under the hot sun, for four whole days. The security forces went around confiscating phones, the musician said, preventing people from documenting the scene.
The musician heard gunshots and screaming. Then he saw smoke: The security forces were burning the bodies.
One victim was his 46-year-old brother, a herder.
“The bodies were unrecognizable,” he said. “All we had was ashes.”
The witnesses said no one knows how many people were killed, but they estimated close to 600, double the Human Rights Watch figure. Half were civilians, they said.
The security forces told residents not to cooperate with extremists or they would return. The Malian defense ministry later announced that soldiers had killed 203 “terrorists.” Army brass visited Moura on April 10 and declared the town had been “released from the terrorists’ yokes.”
Yet Moura no longer exists, the witnesses said. Once the attention dwindled, the extremists accused residents of working with the military and ordered them to leave. “There is no one left in Moura,” the musician said.
Satellite imagery taken at the end of April and throughout May appears to confirm his account: There are no structures left by Moura’s riverbed and the figures in the town squares are gone.
Paquette reported from Dakar, Senegal. Lee reported from Washington. Swaine reported from New York.